It would have been easier if he didn’t have to start each day by shoving dime-sized pieces of plastic into his eyes. Unlike many others who shared in this ritual, though, he didn’t need the contacts to make things visible—he needed them to make himself invisible. His silver eyes would give him away, would ruin the whole plan.
So maybe it wouldn’t have been easier after all.
Before he left for work, Cory changed the oil in the car, fixed the hinges on that sticky door, wrote Eleanor a card, and cut some roses from the garden, which he’d put in a vase he’d made while thinking of her. He retracted his fingers a couple of centimeters before grabbing the keys. Jack of all trades. Master of shape-shifting.
He made his muscles so tight before he walked into the facility that his smile couldn’t give him away. Today, he was going to rescue Eleanor.
“Hey, Sneezy,” one of the other orderlies called out. “Lunch later?”
“Not today.” Cory wished he hadn’t said the reason he rubbed his eyes all the time was allergies. Well, if he was wishing, he might as well wish he hadn’t been born with a defect, that he could change his eyes like the other shifters. Or maybe he would wish that Eleanor’s family was more understanding of her abilities. But then, no, he would have never met her. Never fallen in love. Never had any reason to hope for something better. And, damn, he liked the way hope felt.
The first part was easy enough. He had a key to Eleanor’s room, after all. It was also the very best part.
Her brown eyes gazed up at him through her overgrown bangs. She patted the spot next to her on the bare mattress.
She put on a deep, frustrated frown. He had to make that stop.
“We’re going away,” Cory said.
Her expression didn’t change. It wasn’t like her to be so quiet. Not with him.
“Don’t you want to go on a trip we talked about?
Her look shifted to suspicious. “I thought you were kidding about that. Where would we go?”
“Away. To someplace nice.”
“You can’t be serious. I mean, you’re the nicest orderly here, but…You can’t be serious.”
This hadn’t been the reaction he was expecting, though perhaps it should have been. Despite all the time they’d spent together, Eleanor didn’t know that Cory knew. Eleanor might not know herself.
“You don’t trust me? You don’t trust me. Of course not. How could you trust anyone after your family put you in here?” He half couldn’t wait to tell her and half thought it best to wait forever, in case, despite her abilities—despite what he thought he knew about her—she turned out to be just like everyone else. “Let’s see. There’s really no delicate way to go about this.”
Cory let his body slip into the form of a chameleon. His favorite trick. Eleanor pulled back, her mouth open like those of his former shifter friends when he had explained about his eyes. Though he was far from them, Cory was sure he could see tears forming in her beautiful eyes. Before she could decide to step on him, he forced his bones into those of a pudgy human boy, his head swirling as he shot upwards and outwards so quickly he couldn’t keep his eyes on Eleanor. His skin felt snug for a second until he reached out his hand.
But she slapped it away.
“Stop it. Stop it right now. You’re trying to make me feel crazy, but it won’t work. I know it’s some kind of trick.” Eleanor’s voice from behind her hands was high and cute like a cartoon mouse. Cory imagined scurrying about with her, but swallowed his smile.
“Well, yeah.” Cory forced himself to look like the orderly that Eleanor enjoyed daily visits with. “Of course it’s a trick. But I’m not trying to make you feel crazy. Eleanor, I think you can…Can you? Do anything like that?”
Eleanor was still guarding her face with one hand, shaking her head.
Cory’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re kidding, right?” He’d been so sure. “If you weren’t one of us, you wouldn’t have been locked up here. We both know you’re not crazy.”
“How do you know I don’t just have a cruel family?” she asked.
“Well, you do, but a cruel family alone doesn’t often get people locked away. You must have said or done something in the evaluation. Look. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to get you out of here and then—”
They really ought to be going. Someone was going to eventually notice that he’d spent way too long in there.
“Then we’ll live happily ever after.” He’d actually spent a good deal of time thinking about this part. “Don’t you just want to get out of here?”
Eleanor nodded. “But it will just start all over again. What good is it going to do?”
Cory’s eyes opened wide and started to itch, but he didn’t stop to rub them. Instead he grabbed Eleanor’s hand and took the seat next to her.
“We can do the good of a thousand humans. Maybe a million. We just have to get ourselves a chance.”
Her eyes lit up and he knew he’d won.
“Come on. We don’t have much time. We have to get you out the front door before Dr. Garcia gets back from his break.”
Before she could ask why, Cory took the doctor’s form.
“Obviously there can’t be two of me.” He grinned and took her hand.
They skipped down the corridor, but when Cory swiped his pass at the doorway he shushed her giggles.
“Don’t suppose you can control your shifting?”
“If I did, would I be here?”
“That’s what I thought. Try to look frailer, okay?”
Eleanor hunched her shoulders and wiped away her smile.
“Good. Just follow along.”
Cory pushed the door open and confidently led Eleanor to the front desk.
“Good afternoon, Judith,” Cory said, leaning flirtatiously over the counter. Since he had studied the entire staff’s mannerisms for months, he knew Judy would blush and then do whatever he asked.
Cheeks red, Judy tucked a gray curl behind her ear and pushed the sign-out sheet across the counter. With a fluttering of her overly made up eyelashes, she handed him a pen, disguised as a flower, from the little pot next to her.
“Ah, Judith. You always know what I need.”
Judy’s sagging skin turned flush again.
“Oh, and we’re just going outside for a little fresh air and therapy today. Shouldn’t be too long. Would you mind making sure the nurses have her meds ready when we get back? Room 47, in case I didn’t put that on the sheet. Thanks, Judith.” He winked and guided the supposedly fragile Eleanor to the elevator.
They had barely started their descent when Eleanor stood up straight and strong. Cory removed his supportive arm, but Eleanor put it back in place.
“Nice touch,” she said. “Having them get the meds ready.”
Had he witnessed a human doing the same thing to the other humans, he would have been appalled, but for some reason Cory never felt guilty making the non-shifters do a little extra work, as long as no one got hurt.
The elevator signaled their arrival.
“You ready? Just one more door and then, of course, there’s discreetly leaving the grounds.”
“Whatever you say, Doctor.”
As the doors opened Eleanor shrank back into her patient position.
The lobby was the glimmering place they let the visitors see. As if to say, “See, it’s not really so bad what you’re doing, leaving your family member here. It’s shiny and shiny means good.” Neither Cory nor Eleanor was paying much attention to the lobby, though. They both had their eyes fixed on the doors, through which the world outside glowed.
Cory noticed Eleanor couldn’t hold back her smile. He couldn’t either. They were just minutes away from having every—
One of the nurses he hadn’t studied that well, ran up and grabbed his arm. Cory gently slid out of the nurse’s grip and tightened his hold on Eleanor.
“Excuse me. Can’t you see I’m with a patient?”
“It’s very important. It won’t take long.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Garcia, being the kind of man who adored attention, would not have just let this woman remain frantic. And Cory, were he not in a bit of a hurry, wouldn’t have either.
“Alright, what is it?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Jones want to see their son, but he’s not supposed to have any visitors until after lunch. They said you said it would be okay.”
Cory let out a sigh of relief that it wasn’t a very technical question. Then, remembering he was supposed to be Dr. Garcia, he straightened his spine.
“That’s fine. Of course.”
“Thank you, Doc—” The nurse froze, her eyes first narrowing, then growing wide.
Cory glanced over his shoulder, but knew what he would see. The real Dr. Garcia. Coming in through their exit. Maybe the nurse was the only one who noticed. What if he changed real quick? No, that would only freak them out more.
It was a stupid move, but Cory appreciated the extra time Eleanor took to knock the stunned Dr. Garcia to his rear on the way out. Man, even if she was a horrible shifter, she was strong. He watched her kick off her slippers and tear across the lawn. Once she had a good head start, he did what he never thought he’d do. Change in public.
He went bear. He thought about lion, but decided a bear would have an easier time getting through the door. He stood up on his hind legs and made ferocious noises, feeling a bit silly because if, well, they’d just let him go about his day sans contacts without locking him and Eleanor and people like them up then he wouldn’t have to be scaring the piss out of them, now would he?
Once he got outside, he shook the glass from his fur and ran after Eleanor. The two guards who had almost caught up to her stopped when they saw Cory running at them. They didn’t seem to have guns, and you had to be pretty darn close to use those little cans of pepper spray. They moved out of Cory’s way. Cory passed Eleanor hoping to tear the gates down for her—impressive and useful, he thought.
But something happened when he put his paws to the gate. Like someone had stabbed all his insides at once with a very sharp knife. Cory felt his massive limbs wither away, and as he lay on the ground, he looked at his now human hands.
“It must be electrified. I didn’t know.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Eleanor said, helping him up from the ground. “We have to get out of here.” She pointed to the guards who had resumed their chase now that Cory was less threatening.
“Easy for me. I’ll just be a bird. You’re the one who can’t change.”
“I can. I can.” Eleanor pressed her palms to her temples and shut her eyes like she was concentrating very hard on something.
“What are you doing?”
“Picturing a bird.”
“Really? That’s not how—“
“Shh. I can change whenever I want. I just don’t decide what I change into. I’m thinking if I—“
“Okay, okay. Just hurry.”
Silently, Eleanor vanished. Cory jerked his face towards the sky, looking for the bird she had become. But she was nowhere to be seen. Something brushed against Cory’s feet. It was a fin.
She’d gone and turned herself into a salmon.
Cory swooped into eagle form and picked up his love. He knew better than to bite down even if she would taste delicious. He had to find her some water. And then help her change before she got really eaten.
He dropped her in the pond on the farm across the way and abandoned the eagle form. Freshwater, but it would do short-term. He supposed if she could really change whenever she wanted she didn’t need the water. In fact it might have been a bad idea. What if she turned into a cat or a fly or something? He needed to get her out. What could he be to save her?
The glassy surface of the water shattered, and out of the muddle, Eleanor grew. Her filthy hair was plastered to her back and face. Her gown clung to every perfect part of her body. Cory held out his hand and pulled her to shore.
Eleanor spat a mouth full of water and silt back in the pond. “We’ll have to work on that.”
But Cory shook his head. “You never have to change again if you don’t want to.”
“Of course I want to.”
“That’s fine, too.” Cory took her by the hand and led her towards the gate on the far side of the pasture. She used her free hand to wipe her eyes. Cory froze.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
Leaving her looking lost in the middle of the field, Cory ran back to the bank of the pond. He tore the two tiny pieces of plastic from his eyes and flung them as far as he could, and watched them dissolve into the water.
When he turned around, Eleanor was standing right there.
“Don’t you need those?” she asked.
Hillary Houston, is a voracious reader and sometimes writer who loves words and cupcakes.
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